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The World of Hamlet Made Concrete

The world of our Hamlet will seem modern without being specific to any one decade or national boundary. Our Denmark is a state of mind versus an actual Scandinavian country.

It’s a world of concrete, gold leaf and surveillance cameras; the main set element is literally a concrete cube tipped on edge–a brutal yet unsteady world. We’ll make use of video projection to both alter the landscape and take us to interior psychological landscapes of the characters. 

— Joel Sass in a note for the cast, which was attached to their rehearsal script

 * * *

While contemplating the set design for his new adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Joel Sass considered ideas such as a complicated set of stairs (“It looked cool but more complicated than needed.”) but ultimately settled on a tipped concrete cube. That design got the best response out of all his concepts.

“I looked for the simplest shape that seemed most resonate of each scene and would need minimal manipulation by the stage crew,” Joel said. “The fun part for me is the challenge of balancing practicality and ideas. I understand the interdependence between budget and design.”

Joel did not want a set with “the trappings of an antique, historical diorama.” Instead he wanted a modern design that would better reflect a world of our time. To achieve his ends, he looked to Nordic Brutalist Architecture with its exposed concrete construction that creates an atmosphere or discomfort and uneasiness. It was meant to feel contemporary and monumental–far from “ye old timie.”

 

Brutalist architecture was popular in the 1950s and 1960s and often used to design government and institutional structures, such as university buildings (for instance, the Rarig Center at University of Minnesota’s West Bank). Swedish architect Hans Asplund coined the term “brutalism” to describe Villa Goth, a house that he’d designed in Kabo, Uppsala, Sweden in 1949. The term was then picked up by a group of visiting English architects, and Brutalism’s popularity in England rose as an inexpensive construction and design method for a country that had been ravaged by World War II.

Hamlet’s world is one filled with anxiety due to a violent disruption in leadership and uncertainty as to who holds power. His world sounds a lot like ours today. Will we someday also experience a resurgence in the popularity of Brutalist architecture?

  • * * *

(Note: All photos were taken by Amy Anderson)

To Thine Own Self Be True

The above phrase is one of the most famous lines in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. It is a parent’s advice to only the son, not the daughter, Ophelia, who is played by Maeve Moynihan in Joel Sass’s new adaptation for Park Square Theatre. While some of the male characters have been changed to female in Joel’s version in order to, as he put it, “have more women walking the halls of Elsinore, expanding the notion of who carries power,” Ophelia does remain female and possess limited power in the face of social mores. With Park Square’s Hamlet set in modern times and presented to a contemporary audience, I wondered how Maeve perceived her character and planned to approach her role.

“Ophelia is a complex character, especially in relationship with the other characters,” Maeve reflected. “She’s often seen as being weak, but she’s not weak. She merely wants to please and do the right thing; she worries about the needs of others. The one kind of power that she has which the others lack–or isn’t as potent in them–is empathy. For Ophelia, she has a sense of caring that’s so strong that it cripples her. If you don’t look out for yourself, then you can lose sight of yourself. So Ophelia is misunderstood when we read the play.”

Maeve continued, “Ophelia does have a mind of her own and her own opinions, but she wants to make her mom Polonia proud. The other characters muddle up for her what’s right and wrong for herself, especially her mother, who asks her to spy on Hamlet. It’s not what she would do; but her mom, whom she loves, has asked her to do it.”

As Maeve sees it, Ophelia is very teen-like, a life stage when she’s trying to figure out who she is as an individual. She’s doing this in a court where her mother is of very high rank so Ophelia must always be concerned about how she reflects on her family.

Ophelia (center), played by Maeve Moynihan (Photo by Amy Anderson)

“Sometimes we find ourselves in situations when we’re not weak people or pushovers. We’re just trying to do the right thing given the circumstances,” Maeve said. “What would it be like to be the kid of the President, and you didn’t have a choice about being that?”

Maeve imagines that Ophelia wishes that she could tell everyone to just leave her alone. She doesn’t want her life, including her relationship with Hamlet, in the public eye at all times. During rehearsals, Maeve herself has wished that Ophelia could also tell Hamlet, “Quit being a jerk! It’s not my fault that your father died.”

The prospect of playing Ophelia was, indeed, intimidating for Maeve. The youthful Maeve could certainly relate to Ophelia, but she feared overthinking the role. Director Joel Sass got her to trust her instincts in exploring what he called the “inner violence” done to her. While Maeve had initially considered Ophelia’s descent into madness to be “a fragile unraveling,” she began to see its more explosive emotionality.

“Originally, I would have approached it as unfathomable sadness,” Maeve said. “But Ophelia is actually trying really hard to find her reality again. She realizes that she has a warped reality and something is off because of how people comment on her behavior. What’s frightening to her is not that she thinks something is wrong with herself but that others are treating her like that.

Cast members being directed by Joel Sass; Maeve is second from the left
(Photo by Connie Shaver)

We’ve seen her repressed throughout the play, and finally it’s the moment for her to unleash all the emotions she’d been wanting to let out. She’s no longer worried about how people see her. She lets her pent-up frustration and anger come out. We get to see the demons inside of her that needs expression.”

In rehearsals, Maeve worked hard on how best to unsettle the audience with sharp emotional shifts, true to Joel’s intention to take the audience “to interior psychological landscapes of the characters.” Sudden laughter may just as suddenly turn into crying.

For Maeve, a 2016 graduate of the University of Minnesota/Guthrie Theater Acting Program, the draw to becoming an actor was the chance to get into characters’ heads to be different people. She loves that, as a result, actors come to accept and understand people in new ways. She loves that she’s in a profession that builds empathy.

Nine years ago, some of you may have seen Maeve on the Guthrie stage as Carrie in Little House on the Prairie. That girl has since grown up and is now very excited to be on Park Square’s Proscenium Stage to play the multilayered Ophelia. In her own words, “It’s going to be awesome!”

Though She Be But Little, She is Fierce

In 2015, Kathryn Fumie had played Hamlet in Theatre Unbound’s production of Hamlet, which featured an all-women cast of eight. In contrast, Park Square’s Hamlet is a different adaptation by Joel Sass, featuring a mix-gendered cast of nine. Kathryn plays Hamlet’s trusted friend, Horatio.

“I’d just been pleased that they were thinking of gender-flipping some of the roles. I knew I had a good shot at being cast if more of the characters were female,” said Kathryn. “I can’t wait to be supportive of the role of Hamlet after having experienced the slings and arrows of previously playing him.”

With this Hamlet being set in a contemporary world of intrigue, conspiracy and surveillance, Director Joel Sass had instructed Kathryn in her audition to particularly note the state of tension and level of danger surrounding Hamlet. In such a world, the importance of words is heightened, especially as it pertains to Hamlet. So Horatio would really need to consider the wisdom of telling him about seeing the ghost of his father.

“Think about the insanity of the news! It would be dangerous if people overheard. She may be in trouble,” Kathryn pointed out.

Kathryn Fumie rehearsing as Horatio
(Photo by Connie Shaver)

Considering how to play Horatio, Kathryn realized that the bond between Hamlet and Horatio “has to be really apparent and simple.” Horatio is Hamlet’s best friend, but one who understands his place in society; he’s also his only real confidante.

“When two people walk into a room, you can tell that they’re best friends. They’re comfortable with each other. Through a glance, you can tell that both are thinking the same thing at the same time,” Kathryn observed. “Hamlet will always be on the forefront of Horatio’s mind. That will inform how she moves and so on.”

“The main challenge in being in Hamlet will be the time limit,” Kathryn continued. “The play’s just over two hours long. The ferocity of the pace will affect its mood and high intensity. I’ll be juggling a lot of plates and running back and forth. It’ll be like a sporting match, fun but challenging.”

Since childhood, Kathryn has taken on the fun challenge of being an actor. She recalls how, as the youngest of three siblings, she was “so teeny” as a child but persistent in getting family members to watch her put on numerous plays by the bay window of their house.

Much later, Kathryn got her BFA in Performance through the Mason Gross School of Arts, the arts conservatory at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Her training was akin to being in the rigorous University of Minnesota-Guthrie Theater undergraduate program. But Kathryn chose to attend Mason Gross mainly for offering the only American theatrical program that gives students the opportunity to train for an entire year at the world-renowned Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London.

While reflecting on her actor’s journey, Kathryn noted, “Despite the hustle and hundreds of auditions, it never felt like work. I always felt it was leading somewhere. People see you’re in a play but don’t realize the hard work it took to get there. I’m proud of my hard work.”

As with many artists, working hard for Kathryn has also included employment in numerous types of jobs, from salon work to waiting tables. She has also taught theatre arts to children. To Kathryn, all her real-life interactions with people through work experiences are simply an extension of her actor’s training.

First rehearsal meeting for Hamlet
(Photo by Connie Shaver)

Being an actor definitely requires great resilience to endure the ups, downs and in-betweens along the journey. Being female requires extra grit to deal with the additional challenges flung your way. But it is in the rehearsal room where Kathryn feels especially safe to not be judged by gender.

“Women, in general, are expected to be two people at all times. When they walk into a room, they have to worry about whether they are perceived as an adult or a woman. In rehearsals, I don’t have to be one or the other. In the rehearsal room, you’re just expected to do the work well. Everyone’s simply looking for you to do the work and shine.”

The capacity to shine is limitless for this bold woman who made her own lifelong dream of becoming an actor come true. But Kathryn also sees how being an actor “comes in handy in a lot of ways” and how her skills can be applied to other expertise. Her additional interests include politics and social studies. What may that portend for her future? Who knows. But for now, she has aptly landed in the intrigue-filled world of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

What’s That Got To Do With Jamil Jude?

Jamil Jude
(Photo by Connie Shaver)

Last month, I attended a friend’s graduation at the University of Minnesota. Only two years before, I’d read her application essay explaining her motivation to pursue a Master’s in Public Affairs, despite her already heavy load of a full-time job and parenting as well as the economic and time sacrifices for the family. What drove her all boiled down to a personal value instilled in her by her father: “Always leave it better.”

Today I was involved in a brief discussion about the concept of transformational leadership with the sisters and consociates of the Order of St. Joseph of the Carondelet in St. Paul. Such leaders are change makers; they inspire, motivate and empower followers toward making lasting change through a common vision, and they do so by changing expectations, perceptions and motivations. Unlike traditional transactional leaders who are more concerned with processes and foster compliance through rewards and punishment, transformational leaders challenge the status quo to build a personally and collectively meaningful and productive environment for the common good. The transactional style is less apt to make lasting change, though effective in getting specific projects or tasks done and in dealing with crisis and emergencies

Recently I saw Full Circle Theater Company’s 365 Days/plays by Suzan-Lori Parks: A 2017 Remix. This is a company that I’ve been following since it fell under my radar last year when I saw its inaugural production, Theater: A Sacred Passage. It is a forward-looking multiracial, multicultural and multigenerational company that “artfully addresses issues of human nature and social justice for 21st century audiences.” Led by five highly experienced theatre professionals (Rick Shiomi, co-founder and former artistic director of Mu Performing Arts; Martha B. Johnson, co-founder of Mu Performing Arts; James A. Williams, co-founder of Penumbra Theatre; Lara Trujillo, seasoned vocalist, actor and music educator; and Stephanie Lein Walseth, longtime theatre scholar, artist, educator and administrator), this company does the hard work of “walking the talk” in its commitment to intentional diversity that will impact the Twin Cities theatre community of artists and audience well into the future.

What do any of these seemingly random reflections have to do with Jamil Jude, Park Square Theatre’s Artistic Programming Associate since December 2015? Well, everything.

Find out more in an upcoming post about Jamil!

Going Full Circle and Beyond

The circle is a universal symbol of unity, wholeness, inclusivity and cyclical movement. During both the first rehearsal and opening night of Flower Drum Song at Park Square Theatre, members of Mu Performing Arts reflected on how Mu itself has come full circle on its 25th anniversary. Its once newest core performers, such as Randy Reyes, Sherwin Resurreccion, Katie Bradley and Eric “Pogi” Sumangil, are now the elders as another generation of artists stream through. In fact, when Mu first staged Flower Drum Song about eight years ago, Sherwin had played the young man Ta and Randy his father, Wang. And just four years ago, Randy Reyes inherited the Artistic Director role from co-founder Rick Shiomi, who has since co-found a new company called Full Circle Theater.

First rehearsal of Flower Drum Song (Photo by T. T. Cheng)

First rehearsal of Flower Drum Song
(Photo by T. T. Cheng)

Recently I asked Rick Shiomi to go back down memory lane to Mu’s beginnings, then return us to where it is now and, in conjunction, where he is now. My first surprise on this journey was that then University of Minnesota graduate student Dong-il Lee, not Rick, had initiated the founding of Theater Mu (the organization’s original name).

“I actually came here from Canada for personal reasons,” Rick admitted, “and I didn’t think it was even possible to do. I only knew one or two Asian Americans acting in the Twin Cities. I thought it would be too monumental a task.” Yet Rick agreed to go along for the ride.

However, Dong-il graduated within a year and moved to the East coast for a teaching position and, later, back to South Korea. Rick suddenly found himself heading Mu as interim, and ultimately permanent, Artistic Director.  But why didn’t he just stop then and go on with his life?

“By now, I saw that my future would be in the Twin Cities,” Rick said. “I had already committed my life to Asian American theater, and there was nothing here. I could certainly have worked with another theater, like Mixed Blood, that would do maybe one Asian American play in five years. I preferred to put in the hard work to develop Mu instead.”

The work was, indeed, hard. Rick compared the first five to ten years to “digging trenches to lay a foundation.” People came and went as Mu gradually built its first major wave of core performers to take it to the next level. In its 2003/4 season, Mu reached a new high with an all-Asian American casting of the Sondheim musical Pacific Overtures at Park Square Theatre, followed in 2005/6 with its landmark production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Those were exciting times for Mu.

In Rick’s opinion, “Mu has completed one cycle and is now starting on another, almost like a spiral. There is a certain circular sensation, especially for the actors who have grown up and now play the elders, but it’s a different place and time and their roles have changed.”

Rick, too, has let go of a cycle to begin a new one. He and four other longtime stalwarts of the Twin Cities theater community–Martha B. Johnson, James A. Williams, Lara Trujillo and Stephanie Lein Walseth–founded Full Circle Theater in 2013. By doing so, they are going full circle in the sense of experiencing and implementing some of the same growth challenges and strategies faced by any startup, such as Mu in its younger days. However, this time around, they have all been “around the block” with collective knowledge to their advantage as well as a focus beyond Asian American theater. Listed as one of Full Circle’s core values is theater that “is multiracial and multicultural in its representation of life.”

Full Circle’s upcoming production, 365 Days/365 Plays by Suzan-Lori Parks: A 2017 Remix, will run at the Penumbra Theatre from May 26 to June 11. It will feature 46 of a collection of 365 plays written by Parks in 2002 (one play per day). In its 2007 premiere, 365 Days/365 Plays was lauded as “a national phenomenon….crossing ethnic, racial and economic boundaries.” Flower Drum Song patrons can take advantage of Full Circle’s special offer of $10 tickets by inputting the code FDS at brownpapertickets.com.

With regard to Flower Drum Song, Rick has strong memories of the powerful scene, in Mu’s earlier staging at the Ordway, between Ta and Linda Low–then played by Sherwin Resurreccion and Laurine Price, respectively–when she leaves to make it big in Hollywood. He also recalls the emotional father-son reconciliation dance between Randy and Sherwin as Wang and Ta. Another high point came when Sara Ochs, as Mei-Li, so movingly sang “Love, Look Away.”

“What were you feeling and thinking,” I asked, “as you watched Flower Drum Song to commemorate Mu’s 25th anniversary?”

“What a great evolution/revolution all of us have created!” Rick replied. “I felt great pride in the work of our veterans Sherwin and Katie, leading the cast, and Randy leading the company. And excited by the new talent coming!”

 

Martha B. Johnson, Rick Shiomi, David Henry Hwang and Stephanie Bertumen at opening night for Flower Drum Song (Photo by Connie Shaver)

Martha B. Johnson, Rick Shiomi, David Henry Hwang and Stephanie Bertumen at opening night of Flower Drum Song
(Photo by Connie Shaver)

 

Flower Drum Song – Park Square Theatre’s Proscenium Stage until February 19

 

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